Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio who has two PhDs and a chair in theology at Villanova University, said the priesthood should be ‘reimagined’ with robots working alongside, or instead of, human religious figures.
Delio, who gives talks on theology and science around the world, said robotic priests would have certain advantages, such as being incapable of committing sexual abuse and being gender neutral.
The sister, who holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair of Theology at Villanova University, added that male priests had formed a ‘very patriarchal’ system, something that would be challenged by artificial intelligence.
She said that Catholicism has fixed ideas of what a priest is, that would have to evolve as technology develops.
The humanoid robot Sophia, speaking during an event in Mexico City earlier this month. Sister and theologian Ilia Delio suggest AI will be used to conduct Catholic ceremonies
Pepper the robot has been used to perform Buddhist funeral rights in Japan for years. Nissei Eco Co. has programmed Pepper to recite sutras as part of the firm’s funeral services business
Delio told Vox: ‘Take the Catholic Church. It’s very male, very patriarchal, and we have this whole sexual abuse crisis. So would I want a robot priest? Maybe.’
‘A robot can be gender-neutral. It might be able to transcend some of those divides and be able to enhance community in a way that’s more liberating.’
Her comments came after a new robot priest named Mindar held a talk at Kodaiji – a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this month.
Buddhist funeral have been conducted by an AI robot in Japan for some years.
Robots can also perform a social role in ways human priests could not, according to Delio.
She added that humans should not fear robots ‘replacing’ them, but instead view their use as a partnership.
Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio (left) claims sophisticated robot priests (right an artificial intelligence robot) will either replace or work alongside humans
Delio said: ‘We tend to think in an either/or framework: It’s either us or the robots. But this is about partnership, not replacement. It can be a symbiotic relationship – if we approach it that way.
‘The Catholic notion would say the priest is ontologically changed upon ordination. Is that really true?
‘We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges those ideas – it challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood.’
Other religions have use robots for religious ceremonies, with some performing funeral rites.
In Japan the option to pay a robot named Pepper to perform a funeral at a much cheaper rate has been available for years.
Pepper, the humanoid robot created by SoftBank Robotics, recites a Buddhist sutra at a temple in Yokohama in July
At Beijing’s Longquan Monastery in China, an android monk called Xian’er has been used to recite Buddhist mantras and offer spiritual guidance.
But other Catholics do not see a robot as being able to perform the same spiritual role as a human priest.
Sister Mary Christa Nutt, RSM, that robots cannot be priests because they are incapable of having an intellect or a will with which to cooperate with God’s grace.
She told the Catholic News Agency: ‘It has to do with our Catholic understanding of the need for human mediation, cooperation with interior grace.
‘We’re not dualists. So we don’t separate the importance of the rites and the bodily involvement of all the senses in the rites are very important.
‘But they don’t of themselves suffice. There has to be the interior cooperation of intellect and will.’
Android Kannon ‘Mindar’ is presented to journalists in Japan